Gervaise came home by way of Rue de Puante, at a quarter to six. She had spent the afternoon at the cattle market—a fact proclaimed by the penetrating smell of blood that lingered about the hem of her skirt; at one of her elbows, a bit of reddish-brown offal, clinging to a hair half a centimetre long, was dangling rhythmically.
Her head thrust forward, Gervaise now entered the public lavatory and arranged the keys.
Gervaise’s mother, a fishwife in Plaussans, was daughter of the swarthy Rougon; she was twelve when, on a misty morning, the deputy clerk of the village turned her over on a sack. Then she came to Mourmelon, and here she became big. Her brother, Claudius, third son of the other Mourmelon family, and the painter of later years, lived at the time in Rue de Foutoche, Antwerp; one night, he was awakened by a sharp pain in the stomach, but after a while it passed. Their aunt, the lame-legged Fouan, also had a delicate stomach; later, she moved back to Plaussans. It was here that Gervaise was born.
She now quietly sat down, adjusted the faucets, pushed the doors shut, then, slowly, swept the premises. Nocturnal Paris was stirring from its slumber, and a russet dawn was spreading from the direction of the Public Circumlocution office in Rue de Dounan. From the grocer’s shop across the street—topped by a signboard, foxed and frayed, and bearing the proprietor’s name painted in blue, ornate round characters running from left to right, one character succeeded by the next—came the aroma of blue vitriol. Farther down the street, three metres beyond the stairs, there was a slightly worn cobble-stone, surrounded by several other cobble-stones. At the right-hand corner of this stone, peering back over his shoulder towards the cathedral—visible here through Rue de Bombarde—and twirling his moustache, stood a tuberculosis microbe.
Gervaise was drawing her breath in the calm posture of mature women with a slight cheese odour about them. She wiped the backs of the seats, rubbed the glass door, on which the legend ‘Gents’ had become faded, then impassively sat down in her customary place.
Her sister, Nana, had come up to Paris a few years before, in the last days of the Empire, and set up as a linen-draper in the Bowels of Paris, Labour, Germinal.
Suddenly, she had to jump to her feet—her privacy was intruded upon by a strong, husky voice. It was Caboche, nicknamed Skinny-Lips because his elbows constantly stank from a piece of leather. He had brought the oil, and entered the lavatory crabwise.
“I’ve brought the oil, Ma’am,” he said, and the whole place resounded with his own voice, which issued from his powerful and somewhat frayed-out throat, through his mouth. “Blast them dirty pigs! They sure have made a mess in here with their belching hind-mugs.”
His grandmother had come from Plaussans, at the time of the second Empire, and gone back to where she had come from.
Caboche now set about deodorizing the place in a thorough-going manner. First, he daubed the upper portion of the grey wall with oil, inhaling with relish the heavy odour of oil, which had become his second nature. Whenever he smelt oil, he would go berserk, losing control of his senses: on such occasions the brute in him would be awakened and, beating with his elbows a bony tattoo on the soles of his feet, he would assault underdeveloped young girls in the street. He had a great liking for this kind of work, and he smeared on the oil at an even, measured pace. It was much to his mind, this whole gaudy-coloured edifice, which was frequented by all Paris, and where ordinary workers in overalls queued up with well-dressed civil servants and high-ranking military before the door—please do not close, it shuts by itself. Here, all the vice and pomp of the late Empire paraded before his gaze: this was a place whose attraction proved too powerful for anyone to resist. Here everybody dropped in, here all conventions and tawdry ornaments were thrown off and was revealed in its poignant naturalness the true and unadulterated wretchedness of life, a fine and loathsome wretchedness without deception or betrayal; if not to your liking, your money will be refunded.
Caboche now finished his work. Gervaise was standing on one side, and she felt something warm and soft in the region of her back. On a sudden, they were seized with shuddering. The man hesitated a while, then suddenly grabbed her by the nose: in this fevered moment, he saw in her nothing but flesh. For a few moments they struggled, cheek-bone against cheek bone, flailing each other’s heads with outstretched, flapping noses.
“Damn those dirty swine,” hissed the oilman, “for making such a mess of the whole place!”
And at the gloomy back of the lavatory, amongst old faucets and oilskins, the oilman turned Gervaise over on the stopper of a carbolic acid jar.
Their male cousin was born at Plaussans, and joined the army in 1823 as a volunteer.
Gervaise became big at the end of February. The little drab edifice in Place de la Gloire did a roaring trade, and her family had before them the prospect of modest and enduring well-being during the second period of the Empire. In early March came the mobilization—General Neippery issued posters calling up the young people. Caboche was called up; and in the dimly lit dog’s hair shop in Place Square, some very queer shadows could be seen stealing towards the conveniences in the dusk. Old Fouan had developed a rather odd sort of gait: there was some talk about some loathsome disease he was said to have contracted in the shoulder joints, and the people on the first floor jestingly dubbed him ‘Old Rotting Chest.’ On such occasions, his husky voice would be heard cursing.
“Why can’t them r …… s h .. dd their t …… s!” ** he would cry. “Why, all the world knows that it was just for f ……’s sake that Liza Hobble-Stumps 1..ed her eyes!”
This, at least, was true, that at dusk, when the mad March winds were pregnant with the stench of rotted violets which they were bringing from the direction of the acacia grove, sold at an exorbitant interest and itself slightly decayed—that, about this time of day, the eyes of the unnaturally bloated Liza would get suspiciously rheumy. Apart from that, life ran its smooth and tranquil course. Oh, by the way, Mother Germinal had had some sort of rash break out on the sole of her foot, and this she was continually scratching away at, for the sake of realism.
One day Gervaise returned to her home earlier than usual and found Caboche at work with the oiler. The man had lately become totally addicted to this practice: he flung himself heart and soul into the job, and, his eyes clouded and damp, was laying those streaks of oil on thick. His legs as well as his clothes had got completely saturated with the heavy odour of the stuff, and he inhaled it with ardent passion. His reason, his mind, it seemed, was on the point of giving way. He shot a drunken look at Gervaise, and touched her on the toe. For a minute, Gervaise felt dazed and weak, and she leaned closer to the oilman. Their knees came into contact—but at this moment, someone hurriedly. opened the glass-door, and so no piece of naturalism came to pass between them. Patience, please!
With the approach of summer, Gervaise had to go and purchase a stock of sanitary paper; and she was passing through the forest, coming from the direction of Versailles. The air was close arid sultry; flowers of all sorts and denominations were breathing secretions of scent; and larks suffering from venereal diseases were whimpering on the branches of the trees. Yet from Paris, the breeze brought an invigorating fragrance of vitriol.
However, in one of the Class A compartments of the house on Place de la Gloire, the chain snapped, and through the crack in the sewage-pipe the whole matter flowed into the pan and, mingled with oil, trickled down the side. By the time Gervaise reached her home, the lavatory was chock full of naturalism. This misfortune was the consequence of extravagant, formidable and irresistible oiling, which threatened to bring the family to the brink of catastrophe. This ghastly, dire calamity occurred on July 1st. On the same day, a certain Moltke reached Sedan; a certain Bismarck insisted on reparations; and a certain Europe—you know, the one somewhere near the Atlantic—was on the eve of a world crisis; and other, equally insignificant pieces of romanticism were taking place. Well, as has been said, the whole matter trickled down, mixed with oil; and a piece of the pulpy mass got under Gervaise’s nails. That day, at the grocer’s, Old Fouan’s rat started to retch.
Her mother was born in a gutter, at Plaussans, and she was a cousin to Nana, a Parisian cocotte. She had come to Paris ten years earlier.
“That old X ... n!” yelled Caboche, with a drunken belch. 'I wish they’d pl.... his z.... for him!”
And he pushed off.
Two years after, Gervaise and her family were compelled to move out. Frightful, excessive oiling had absorbed everything—the greasy liquid soaked into the walls and sapped the flooring. This deplorable and fatal passion of a debauched, degenerate and sybaritic generation to use oil for deodorizing naturalism had come home to roost at last, with a vengeance. One day Caboche collapsed in a pit. He vomited, and was oozing oil from his every pore. He was taken to hospital.
As Gervaise entered the hospital ward, Caboche was crying—tears of oil. Two nuns were supporting him, surrounded by three corpses that had turned green and mouldy, at the Morgue. The whole place was pervaded by a horrible stench.
It was evening when Gervaise got back into the street. She stepped into a barrel of oil. From everywhere, people smelling of oil came dragging their limbs—the grim poison had soaked into all the walls of Paris and trickled down from the top of the Eiffel Tower. With unsteady, oilshot eyes, she dragged her frame along for a while, then collapsed in a pot-hole.
Now there arose a murmur that swelled irresistibly into a roar, coming from the boulevards, from the forests and from the crepuscular sky‑‑the squelchy noise of oil being sucked up and absorbed; of oil, which now drew a yellow, decayed and destructive pall over the putrid carcass of Paris. Of oil, which people had wanted to use for deodorizing It, and which now engulfed and drowned everything—Life and Death, Poverty and Romanticism.
And under the Pont-Neuf, quietly and in a pose of disdain as if nothing had happened, a third Realist was in the act of discharging his candidly human duty.
* From Így írtok ti (“The Way You Write”), a volume of literary pastiches.
** The words marked by dots are unprintable. The honoured reader is invited to fill in Whatever foul words he may please. (Author’s note)
SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. Emile Zola: Oil (A Novel), translated by István Farkas, The New Hungarian Quarterly, vol. III, no. 6, April-June, 1962, pp. 83-84, extracted from A selection of the works of Frigyes Karinthy, pp. 84-89. Footnotes converted to endnotes for this web page.
Mr. Selfsame by Frigyes Karinthy
“Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker” by Miklós Vajda
Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work by Frigyes Karinthy
Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English
Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto
Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide
Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress
Frigyes Karinthy @ Ĝirafo
Frigyes Karinthy @ 50 watts
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